If you drop by our Alison Anderson event on Tuesday, March 9, you're going to see some of her translations for sale. When you see these books, you might find yourself stopping to stare, as Anderson has been blessed with some of the most eye-catching covers I've seen in bookstores. (Note, not all of these books will be available at the event, but you can still buy them at your favorite local indie bookstore.) Here, for instance, is one of her latest translations, The Most Beautiful Book in the World:
(Before we get into Marian Schwartz's offering in our Tookit series, a note: The Center will be co-sponsoring a translation workshop with Marian Schwartz on Saturday, March 20. Geared toward new translators, it will cover practical topics such as choosing projects, rights and permissions, and the publishing business. Attendees will also have a chance to undertake a hands-on translation of a passage of fiction. Spacing is limited and registration is required, so if you're interested make sure you register here.)
Like any proud literary tradition, Russia's is constantly referring to itself. Probably not more so than any other, but sometimes that's how it seems when you're the translator trying to track down a quotation. In the bad old days, before those crazy electrons started flying through the air and into our work spaces, we relied on native informants steeped in their own literature to identify an allusion. Not a bad solution. Tried and true really. But it does require human interaction and is never instantaneous (unless you happen to be that native informant's significant other, an option that eluded me forty years ago).
A few years ago I attended ATA's national conference?not a regular stop on my annual rounds?specifically to hear and meet Michele Berdy, an American expat who has lived in Moscow for decades and who writes a fine column for The Moscow Times explicating Russian vocabulary, idioms, and usage for English speakers. She was giving a workshop and delivering the Slavic Division's keynote speech. Both performances were stellar, yielding multiple insights and new information but also a fabulous tidbit (assuming tidbits can be fabulous). Berdy told of a CD that collected vast quantities of Russian literature from the eleventh to the early twentieth century. Virtually everything by virtually every writer you ever have and haven't heard of. And it was searchable.
Fast forward a year to Moscow. Locating and purchasing this CD was high on my to-do list while I was there. Friends sent me to Gorbushka, Moscow's gigantic marketplace for household goods, music, and electronics. In the Metro, I eavesdropped on the various conversations around me until I found a youthful threesome clearly headed for the land of CDs. We all got off at the Bagriotonskaya station and I followed them, as the cops say on TV.
The Gorbushka I entered is a far cry from the black market that sprung up near there in the 1980s, before CDs were widely available in Russia, on a square by the Gorbunov House of Culture. The illegal trade had been brisk. Eventually the government threatened to shut it down altogether, but instead, in the face of furious popular opposition, including spontaneous protest rallies, they repurposed the nearby Rubin factory as the new civilized and nonpiratical Gorbushka. I think they were exaggerating about at least one of those adjectives.
(Lit&Lunch 2010 continues! Our next guest will be Alison Anderson on March 9, where she'll be giving us a triple-threat of French literature: JMG Le Clézio, Christian Bobin, and Muriel Barbery. We'll be sharing various information about Anderson and these authors over the next couple weeks: first off is this interview, where she explains what drew her in to each writer and what, if anything, unites them.)
Scott Esposito: On your blog you note that Onitsha, your translation by 2008 Nobel laureate JMG Le Clézio, was one of your first serious translations. How was it that you happened upon Le Clézio a good 15 years before most American had heard of him, and what was it about this book that drew you in?
Alison Anderson: I had recently moved to San Francisco from Europe and was suffering from culture shock and nostalgia, so I signed up at the Alliance Française to be able to use their library. There was a copy of Le Chercheur d'or (The Prospector) on the new bookshelf; I read it and was enthralled, discovering an entire new world, both the strange distant world of Mauritius Le Clézio describes, and the slow, evocative prose I find so compelling. I immediately wanted to translate it but it had already been done, by Carol Marks. A few years later when I read Onitsha I found that same evocative world, and prose—so different from the plot-driven novels in English—and I set off on the long, hard—naïve—path of trying to find a publisher, but eventually found a sympathetic editor at Nebraska.
SE: Also on your blog, you note that Le Clezio's books are demanding because they ask for the reader to give in not to the story but to the language (which is something that I've found as well). Elsewhere you described the language as fluid and evocative, not too difficult, clear and classical and called the book a translator's dream. What about the language made you feel this way, and why did you find it so ideal for translation?
AA: Le Clézio doesn't strive for effect; he has an image he wants to get across as clearly and deeply as possible. Clear prose in the original lends itself more easily (but on occasion deceptively) to fluid translation, at least in my experience. So on the one hand, it is always rewarding to be able to translate good prose that you can convey easily into English and know you haven't lost too much or betrayed the original. But what's more, with Le Clézio, is that there is an almost trance-like beauty to the rhythm of his sentences that takes over, and there is a kind of sensual pleasure to be looking for the corresponding words and experience in English. It's hard to describe exactly, but very few of the authors I've translated since have had this effect on me.
SE: What other Le Clezio in translation would you recommend to readers?
AA: The Prospector, definitely. Godine has reissued it.
SE: To switch gears here, I'd like to ask you a little about Christian Bobin. In Two Lines you've characterized him as a literary phenomenon in France, where he sells hundreds of thousands of book. Could you give some idea of his place in the French scene, and what it is about his books that works so well?
AA: Well, it's not exactly switching gears completely! As discussed in your earlier question, language plays an important in Le Clézio's work, but this is nothing unusual for French literature. I would say that what matters in France is not so much a story, a plot, but a well-crafted moment of fiction; style and proper use of language are immensely significant. It's not what is written but how it's written. Christian Bobin took the use of language to new level, certainly in his earlier innovative work of the late 1980s and early 1990s; he completely eclipsed the border between prose and poetry in his short lyric essays, as Russell Valentino of Autumn Hill Press has eloquently called them. It's a deeply personal prose, and whether you like it or not will also be deeply personal; he keeps a very low profile to this day, and has a sort of cult following, but clearly for him writing is a way to be close to life, to the lived moment, and this has touched a nerve with a lot of people.
SE: You've just published a translation Bobin's called A Little Party Dress: Lyric Essays. Is this a typical work for Bobin? What American author would you compare him to?
AA: Yes, it is definitely typical; most of his books are very short and consist either of these unrelated essays, or are a long meditation on an eternal theme, constructed in short paragraphs. There are a few novellas that I find less engaging than the essays; there are also more challenging, more philosophical works that the publisher classifies as poetry.
I can't say I've found any American author to compare him to; that's why his voice was so startling and unique to me. There are surely poets who are closer, but the experience is different because there, you're reading poetry.
SE: I'd like to switch gears again since I didn't want to let you go without asking you a little about Muriel Barbery, whose novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog just lodged its 52nd week as a New York Times bestseller. This is a French novel that deals with the ideas of Husserl, Heidegger, and all kinds of other philosophers, and we often hear that the American public has no appetite for French philosophical fiction. (In fact, I believe The New York Times itself recently published something to that effect.) So why do you think this book has so clearly resonated?
AA: There are many reasons but to be honest I think the philosophy was the least of them: the book resonated in spite of the philosophy! (Some readers have confessed they skipped those sections, but really, I find they are meant to be tongue in cheek and you don't need to take them at all seriously.) For me personally there are three reasons the book succeeded: the characters, the intelligence, and the humor. All three are woven together to create something that, while it is not always believable and should be read with a grain of salt, nevertheless resonates with readers on both an intellectual and an emotional level. People who didn't like the book clearly took it at face value: you can't. The characters are larger than life, but illustrate in a fresh way some age-old dilemmas . . . Beauty, the meaning of life, love, death—all the clichés, so how to write about them freshly? By having Parisian bourgeoises battle over lace underwear and concierges indulge surreptitiously in the joys of films by Ozu. It's what we all do in fact.
SE: Lastly, I wanted to ask you about these three authors collectively, all French writers still writing today in French. Do you see them as unified by anything?
AA: I think they are unified by the importance of language, but they do represent very different aspects of French culture. Le Clézio was praised by the Nobel committee for his world view, so to speak, his concern for indigenous cultures, his global attention to life beyond the borders of one country, one culture, and his work reflects this on every page. Bobin is just the opposite, on first glance; very reclusive, introspective, he rarely travels. But he sees the world in a grain of sand . . . Muriel Barbery is more representative of a younger generation, you can feel more outside influences, but there is also a lot of satire of French society. I don't think any of them are typical, at all, of what is generally popular and/or critically well-received; to me they do seem to be in categories unto themselves. Perhaps that is what I found so appealing about all three, virtually from the first few pages I read.
With The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Tokyo Fiancee, and a Frenchman named JMG Le Clezio, translator Alison Anderson has had her share of success, something she'll be sharing with the Center at Lit&Lunch on March 9.
Now she's just published a translation of Consolation by Anna Gavalda in the UK, and it looks like more success is on the way:
Consolation follows the classic narrative arc of a principal character being jolted from the callow irresponsibility of youth through a wiser period of guilt to eventual redemption. Despite an awkward start, it makes an uncomplicated, easily digestible, cheering read; so it's perhaps unsurprising that it became the best-selling French novel of 2008, moving over half a million copies and being translated into 32 languages. This achievement puts Anna Gavalda alongside well-established writers like Fred Vargas, whose compounding sequence of taut procedurals and thrillers has earned her a loyal reputation.
Gavalda's success has enjoyed a similar steady growth. After widespread rejection, her debut collection of stories about love, penned while she was still a French schoolteacher, was published in 1999 by a small house. It became a word-of-mouth phenomenon, selling almost a million copies.
Translation pops up in an interesting way in this article on Chinese author Louis Cha, who has perhaps sold a billion copies of his novels (if pirated editions are accounted for). Though Cha is a powerhouse in China, not much of his work is available in English, and here's where translation pops up:
Many who want to read Louis Cha in English have found backdoor access to his books through the Internet. Nearly all of Cha's novels are available in English as online bootlegs. The bootlegs are of varying quality, often communal efforts by wuxia enthusiasts, and sometimes the long serials are incomplete. According to Statbrain.com, just one of these sites averages over five hundred hits per day, which isn't impressive by Internet standards, but when compared to how many hits per day many well-known small presses receive, it's a respectable statistic. Furthermore, nearly every one of those five hundred hits is a downloaded book in translation. The fact is, there are more readers for Louis Cha in English than there are for many other novels.
We've picked the winners of the drawing for our Natasha Wimmer-signed copy of 2666 and our Breon Mitchell-signed edition of The Tin Drum. First off, thanks to everyone who participated in this drawing by donating to the Center over the holidays. Every donation counts, and your support of the Center will enable us to keep promoting translation and translators this year.
Now on to the winners. First prize, receiving translator-signed copies of 2666 and The Tin Drum, plus a copy of the newest Two Lines anthology, Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed, is Karen Miller. The winners of the two runner-up prizes, a translator-signed copy of The Tin Drum and a copy of Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed, are the pairs Michael Metzger and Chikako Nakandakari, and Chiara Andres and Davi Robinowitz.
In 1993 when Susan Bernofsky published her first book-length translation of Robert Walser, the author was little-known in English and virtually unread in the United States. By 2009, when Bernofsky’s translation of The Tanners signified that all of Walser’s novels were available in English for the first time, the release of that book was greeted with praise from publications as diverse as BookForum, Time Out New York, and the Los Angeles Times.
The rise of Walser in translation over the past two decades has been nothing short of stunning, and it is thanks in no small part to a group of fine translators, of whom Bernofsky has played a leading roll. Since her first publication of Walser in 1993 she has published two other books by him, with two more on the way, as well as a critical biography of the author. No less a reader than the Nobel-winning novelist and critic J.M. Coetzee—one of Walser’s great contemporary admirers—has praised Bernofsky’s translations for their “ingenuity” and “resourcefulness” in dealing with his wide vocabulary and highly precise prose.
Walser lived from 1878 to 1956, although it is widely believed that he gave up writing after 1933 when he committed himself to a sanatorium. In his time his writing received praise from the likes of Kafka, Musil, and Walter Benjamin, but after his death he fell into obscurity in Europe, and it was only in the 1960s and ‘70s that he began to be known again on that continent. Susan Sontag took up the cause of Walser in the U.S. in the 1980s, but wasn’t until the late ‘90s and the ‘00s, with the translation of a number of his major works, that he began to become known here.
Bernofsky has described Walser’s prose as walking “a fine line between the maudlin and the trivially playful,” going on to say that he “always manages to stay right in the middle, in that sweet spot where he achieves a sort of guileless profundity that takes the reader by surprise again and again.” The translation of such writing is difficult to say the least, and we are fortunate that Bernofsky has proven herself up to the challenge time and time again.
In addition to Walser, Bernofsky has translated German-language works from the renowned Japanese author Yoko Tawada, as well as Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse for The Modern Library, and others. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including ones from the PEN Translation Fund, the NEA, and the Lannan Foundation.
In this review of the new translation of The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, Hans Kundnani gets in-depth with some of the issues of translation Breon Mitchell encountered:
Equally significantly, Mitchell aims to convey the way the language of the original text mimics Oskar's drum. In one case, Manheim simply left out an apparently incoherent series of words at the beginning of a chapter in which Oskar describes his ability to zurücktrommeln, or drum up the past. Mitchell restores these words, translated as Built up, chopped down, wiped out, hauled back, dismembered, remembered, which suggest the manipulation of memory and convey the percussive effect of the original text.
(The Translator's Toolkit is a recurring feature on Two Words wherein we ask translators to tell us about indispensable tools of their art. Here, Willard Wood talks about the unique virtues of the OED online. Wood's translation of The Greatest Rabbi on Earth by Denis Baldwin-Beneich appeared in the Center's latest anthology, Wherever I Lie Is Your Bed. His translation of The Last Rendezvous by Anne Plantagenet will be published by Other Press in March of this year .)
[caption id=attachment_689 align=aligncenter width=533 caption=Making the Oxford English Dictionary][/caption]
Translators working with English, in either direction possibly, have a good excuse to use the Oxford English Dictionary. It is not wrong to call it an exhaustive historical dictionary of the English language, but it would be fairer to say that it is one of the seven or eight wonders of the modern world, a collective effort that dwarfs the Pyramid of Cheops for labor, and to notice that it has no counterpart in any other living language. It may be slightly out of proportion to the humdrum task the translator normally faces, but if it is within your reach (the main obstacle is a hefty annual subscription fee), why not use it? After all, nothing is ever simple when it comes to words.
The first payoff is just in the completeness of the dictionary. It is not unusual, working in a language with close historical ties to English, to find that a difficult word in the source language actually figures somewhere in the OED. This was the case when a French author who prides himself on his recondite vocabulary came up with immarcescence, which is not in my online monolingual dictionary. A quick check of the OED showed that, with a change of pronunciation, it is in fact a perfectly legitimate if obsolete English word meaning incorruptibility. The root comes from the Latin word meaning to fade or to wither. In the form marcescence, it is still commonly used today by field biologists to describe when a plant's parts wither but don't fall off, like the leaves of an oak tree in winter.
The OED is also suited to translating texts that must read as though they were written in earlier centuries. Its definitions are arranged from the earliest meaning of a word to the most recent, not as in other dictionaries from the most to least common. And the citations gathered in support of a particular meaning are also ordered chronologically. We may hesitate in translating 19th-century speech, for instance, to describe something as ironic, thinking that irony is a particularly 20th-century sentiment. The OED can help us here. Irony, or expressing the opposite of one's intended meaning, is a classical figure of speech and was therefore familiar to educated Englishmen from the 16th century onward. In its figurative use to mean an outcome opposite to what one might expect (an irony of fate), the term is documented starting in the mid-17th century. Yet the adjective, though common especially in the form ironical,seems to have been largely applied to a person's speech or affect. We would be right then to avoid ironic in the mouth of a 19th-century character, at least where the larger sense is meant. It is a shorthand that only became comprehensible in this century for something like: It is an irony of circumstance that . . . A small touch maybe, but telling.
Of course, to get to a word via the OED is to take the long way around. The short-cut is to use a bilingual dictionary. To seek a word's meaning in a monolingual dictionary first is a more conscientious procedure. You then turn to the OED to explore the neighborhood. Say you are looking for the right word for a cannabis or marijuana cigarette. A search for those words in the definitions of the OED turns up the headwords: bifter, bomb, charge, doobie, joint, juju, reefer, stick, spliff . . . and many more, each with a wealth of supporting citations and their dates of use. Now you have something to work with.
The search features of the OED online also allow you to look up word phrases or collocations--even if they don't figure as independent entries. I often check on whether I am using the right preposition with a verb, for instance, as long contact with the source language tends to warp my sense of allowable English usage, and the OED's full-text search is an easy road to reassurance or correction.
But the times when the OED really seems worth the cost is when you need to translate a key word in a passage, one that resonates on several registers, and you need to dig down and find something that fits the right nexus of suggestion.
In the opening passage of Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, the emperor describes a visit to the doctor. A translator is likely to notice that Hadrian uses the verb dépouiller to talk about taking off his clothes for the examination. It means to strip away, but it is a strong word, also used about bare trees, about skinning an animal. For the aging emperor, deprived by infirmity of the pleasures of riding, swimming, and the hunt, aware of his death looming like a land-mass on the horizon, and who speaks of love as laying a man bare, it is clear that dépouillement (the word is repeated several times in different contexts in the opening chapter) is a key concept.
Here the OED comes into its own. We find strip away and peel off, also shuck, lay aside, abandon, denude, and divest. Among these, or lying nearby, in the quotations from Donne, Cowper, T. H. Huxley, and Shakespeare's King Lear, is likely to be the right word, similarly strong, similarly marked. Or at least a prompt that will bring the right word to mind. This is what makes the OED online an invaluable part of the translator's toolkit.
We're just 8 days from our Lit&Lunch event with Susan Bernofsky on Robert Walser, so I thought I'd present a roundup on some writing by and on Walser freely available online. The variety of venues you can find Walser in these days--as well as the quality of writing you'll see--is a real testament to how far he's come as a popular author in the U.S. So here are the resources:
Benjamin Kunkel in The New Yorker on Robert Walser:
As adolescents, he and Karl had apparently perfected the art of perching in a high window and throwing their hats onto the heads of passersby, and their mischief persisted in adulthood. One evening at a party, they challenged the famous playwright Frank Wedekind to a bout of Hosenlupf (literally, trouser-hoist), a Swiss wrestling variant that makes inventive use of an opponent's waistband. When Wedekind, discomfited, fled to a café, his tormentors pursued him, hailing him with friendly, if cryptic, cries of Muttonhead! and causing him to get caught up in a revolving door. On another occasion, in a literary salon, Walser interrupted the high-flown talk by seizing a young Englishwoman's leg and praising her small feet.
THE ITALIAN NOVELLA
I have strong cause to doubt if readers will like a story like this about two people, two little people, namely a charming nice young woman and an honest good and in his own way at least just as nice young man who enjoyed the most lovely and heartfelt relations of friendship with each other. The tender and passionate love they felt, each for the other, was like the summer sun in terms of heat and like December snow in terms of purity and chastity. Their kind mutual intimacy seemed unshakeable, and their fiery, innocent inclination toward each other grew from day to day like a wonderful plant rich in color and as rich in perfume. Nothing seemed able to disturb this very sweetest of conditions and very most beautiful trust, and everything would have been nice and perfect if only the honest good dear and young man were not deeply familiar with the Italian novella. . . .
But what's most striking is how the tone and scenario anticipate that of early Kafka, particularly that of The Stoker and the novel it became part of, The Man Who Disappeared (aka Amerika). Walser is often compared spuriously to Kafka, but in The Assistant, and not in any of his other work that I've read, I think there's some merit to the comparison. . . .
In Kafka one also catches echoes of Walser's prose, with its lucid syntactic layout, its casual juxtapositions of the elevated with the banal, and its eerily convincing logic of paradox. Here is Jakob in reflective mood:We wear uniforms. Now, the wearing of uniforms simultaneously humiliates and exalts us. We look like unfree people, and that is possibly a disgrace, but we also look nice in our uniforms, and that sets us apart from the deep disgrace of those people who walk around in their very own clothes but in torn and dirty ones. To me, for instance, wearing a uniform is very pleasant because I never did know, before, what clothes to put on. But in this, too, I am a mystery to myself for the time being.
What is the mystery of Jakob? Walter Benjamin wrote a piece on Walser that is all the more striking for being based on a very incomplete acquaintance with his writings. Walser's people, suggested Benjamin, are like fairy-tale characters once the tale has come to an end, characters who now have to live in the real world. There is something laceratingly, inhumanly, and unfailingly superficial about them, as if, having been rescued from madness (or from a spell), they must tread carefully for fear of falling back into it.